Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

Promoting tolerance and justice through knowledge and understanding
Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

Truth Commission: Panama

United States Institut of Peace
United States Institut of Peace
December 31, 2004

Truth Commission: Panama Truth Commission (Comisión de la Verdad de Panamá)
Duration: 2001 - 2004
Charter: Executive Decree No. 2, January 18, 2001
Commissioners: 7
Report: Public report

Truth Commission: Panama Truth Commission (Comisión de la Verdad de Panamá)

Dates of Operation: January 2001 – April 2002 (one year, three months).  A additional follow up office operated until December 2004.

Background: In October 1968, a military junta, led by General Omar Torrijos, took power after ousting President Arnulfo Arias Madrid. Torrijos's rule was characterized by human rights abuses and corruption as he attempted to counter the guerrilla movement backing the former president. After Torrijos's death in 1981, the Panama Defense Forces, led by General Manuel Noriega, continued to control the government. The political situation was highly unstable and the opposition was fiercly repressed. In 1987, the U.S. government stopped economic assistance to Panama. The outcomes of the May 1989 election were against military rule and, as a result, the elections were annulled. The ensuing riots and instability precipitated the arrival of U.S. troops in December 1989, overturning Noriega. The elections commission confirmed the results of the earlier elections.

More than a decade past, an attempt was made to address the need to examine the past. Mireya Moscoso, widow of Arnulfo Arias Madrid, was elected president in 1999. A year later, exhumations at a former military base on the outskirts of the capital disclosed the remains of four human skeletons, including those of Jose Hector Gallego, a Colombian priest abducted by the military in 1971. On January 18, 2001, Moscoso established a truth commission.

Charter: Executive Decree No. 2, January 18, 2001.

Mandate: The Panama Truth Commission was mandated to investigate human rights violations perpetrated during the military dictatorships of Generals Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega between 1968 and 1989. The commission was explicitly prohibited from making conclusions on legal responsibilities of individual perpetrators.

Commissioners and Structure: The commission was made up of seven commissioners, five men and two women, led by lawyer and Catholic activist Alberto Santiago Almanza Henríquez. The commissioners were appointed by the president.

Report: The commission's final report, Informe Final de la Comisión de la Verdad de Panamá (2002) was issued April 2002 in Spanish.


  • Overall, the report concluded that the military regime engaged in "torture [and] cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" of the victims.
  • 110 of the 148 cases of reported human rights abuses were documented. Most of the violations took place in the first years of the dictatorship between 1968 and 1972 against supporters of former President Arias. The commission discovered 24 gravesites and excavated 36 graves, many of which were located in military buildings and prisons.
  • The commission recommended financial and moral reparations to relatives of the victims.
  • Further recommendations included the creation of a permanent government agency to follow up on the work of the commission and to maintain its files, strict civilian control over the national police and other internal pubic security forces, improved human rights education in school, and a concerted effort at dissemination of the commission’s report.
  • The commission recommended further systematic excavations at other suspected gravesites and advised the president to reactivate the office of special prosecutor to take legal action against those suspected of committing atrocities. Further investigation was recommended in 40 cases.
Subsequent Developments:
  • After the release of the report, an unofficial follow-up committee continued to work. On October 20, 2003, by Executive Decree 559, the Truth Commission was extended to December 31, 2004 and was renamed the Office for Follow-up of the Institutional Truth Commission (Comisión Institucional de la Verdad–Oficina de Seguimiento). The reauthorized commission reported to both the president and the Ministry of Justice.
  • The office suffered a break-in after it completed its report, possibly by persons seeking to destroy its records. The records in Panama are unavailable for public access.
  • In 1992 Noriega was sentenced to serve 30 years in a Miami prison for his role in drug trafficking to the United States. In 1995 he was also found guilty in absentia of murder in Panama. In April 2010, the US extradited Noriega to France where he faces charges of money-laundering. Panama has also requested his extradition.
Special Notes: Serious setbacks were caused by a lack of funds and opposition from the Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD), the party founded by Torrijos.